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Neocon Fantasies of Empire Crushed: the New Global Reality

Two disastrous wars and the economic meltdown have shaken America's superpower status. What can Obama do to help shape a sustainable global order?

Not long ago, excitement over American imperialism reached levels not seen in a century. "People are coming out of the closet on the word ‘empire,’" the right-wing columnist Charles Krauthammer told The New York Times in early 2002. Neoconservatives were on the rise in Washington, and their leading propagandists were not shy in making the case for aggressive expansionism. 

Wall Street Journal editor Max Boot, for instance, took issue with Pat Buchanan’s belief that the United States should be a "republic, not an empire." "This analysis is exactly backward," Boot wrote. "[T]he Sept. 11 attack was a result of insufficient American involvement and ambition; the solution is to be more expansive in our goals and more assertive in their implementation." He added, "troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodphurs and pith helmets.”

It is hard to believe that those sentiments, hallmarks of George W. Bush’s first term, were features of our very recent history. The debate they were a part of now seems distinctly strange and foreign. Since then, the world has experienced a catastrophic occupation in Iraq, and voters have ousted the Republican vanguard of the "War on Terror." Overt defenders of imperialism have found good reason to creep back into their wardrobes. 

And that, of course, is to say nothing of the bursting of the housing bubble, the fall of Lehman, and the end of the hedge fund era. With unemployment rising and Wall Street shamed, we have entered a period of economic downturn acute enough to raise serious questions about the viability of U.S. power. The pressing issue today is: How will the economic crisis affect our country’s role in the world? Or, more bluntly: Is America’s empire facing foreclosure?

The answer involves more than just quibbles over the semantics of U.S. dominance. Together, the fallout from the imperial hubris of the Bush administration and the discrediting of the deregulated market fundamentalism that thrived even under Bill Clinton have opened new possibilities for reshaping the global order in the Obama years.

Stretched Beyond the Limits?

The theory of imperial decline that has become standard over the past two decades is known as "overreach" or "overstretch." Historian Paul Kennedy most famously described the concept in his 1988 book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers . Kennedy argued that, historically, dominant world powers doomed themselves by engaging in overseas adventures that drained their strength and strained their finances. His analysis, with its implication that the United States could well follow the pattern of past empires, proved influential. The term "imperial overstretch" quickly became a fixture in mainstream political discussion.

At the time, American conservatives fumed. They argued that the British-born professor was a doomsdayer who did not appreciate America’s unmatched power. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the American economy took off in the 1990s, they considered themselves vindicated. However, it appears that Kennedy may yet have the last laugh. 

Today, the price tag on America’s global military posture looks more imposing than ever. Even under President Obama—whose administration has proposed cutting a few costly and outmoded weapons systems -- the United States will spend upwards of a half trillion dollars per year to fund its armed forces and keep up its "Baseworld." This is what author and foreign policy analyst Chalmers Johnson named the country’s sprawling network of overseas encampments, rarely noticed by citizens at home but bitterly resented by much of the world. The United States officially owns 737 bases worldwide, worth more than $127 billion and covering at least 687,347 acres in some 130 foreign countries. "Once upon a time, you could trace the spread of imperialism by counting up colonies," Johnson writes in his 2007 book, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic . "America’s version of the colony is the military base.”